In the past year, thousands of crime preventers (CPs) have been recruited and trained across Uganda.
According to the government, there are now 30 CPs in each “village.” Collectively these cells comprise a volunteer force under police management who are trained in self-defence and crime prevention, but also ideology and patriotism. Their role is to report on and help prevent crime in co-operation with police and local communities.
In theory, CPs constitute a form of community policing that draws upon established programmes around the world — from the neighbourhood watch schemes of North America and Europe to the system of community police cells in neighbouring Tanzania.
However, in practice, many allege that CPs are actually “crime creators” rather than “crime preventers.” At one level, some CPs have reportedly been involved in extortion and other criminal activities.
More worryingly — especially given the approach of next month’s election — is the widespread sense that CPs are biased towards the ruling NRM party, and that they are being used to mobilise support for President Yoweri Museveni and other NRM candidates, and to suppress political opposition.
In this context, it is understandable that prominent human-rights organisations — including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Human Rights Network Uganda (HURINET-U) — have called upon the government to suspend the CP programme ahead of the national elections.
Their argument is that, since “the exact mandate, command structure, and number of crime preventers” is unclear, and “there is no legal statute establishing the programme”, they lack accountability and are open to politicisation.
CPs are thus working “in a grey area between the state and civilians,” which allows them — as the head of HURINET-U has argued — to “operate with impunity and without oversight or clear command structure.”
More specifically, these organisations highlight how training and legal ambiguities have been exploited to ensure that CPs are politically biased and become a means to intimidate opposition candidates, their supporters, and ordinary voters.
Clearly, some CPs have become involved in direct acts or threats of physical violence. More important, however, is their contribution to a general fear of violence and intimidation. CPs have contributed to such a climate in a number of ways.
First, while CPs are sometimes recognisable by their branded white t-shirts and wooden staves, the norm is for their numbers and presence to be shrouded in rumour and secrecy. This is intentional and contributes to a sense of CPs’ potential lurking presence at rallies and meetings, but also in market places, bars, and restaurants.
In this vein, and according to Human Rights Watch, one CP training manual states that these volunteers should report to police “any crime which is about to be committed or has been committed within their area [by] picking [up] information … in public places, burials, weddings, bars or anywhere you can get rumours.”
It goes on to encourage CPs to “do your work secretly,” and to not “advertise yourself as a crime preventer because even the one you are investigating can turn against you.”
Second, while there are reports that CPs have already intimidated and threatened opposition supporters in some areas, there is a widespread fear that their role and visibility could increase as the country approaches the election in the event of any election-related disputes, demonstrations or riots.
Of particular concern in this regard are plans for the country’s police force to draw upon CPs to recruit many of the 36,000 “special constables” who are needed to bring the number of security personnel mandated to secure the electoral process to 150,000.
The fear is that the political biases displayed by CPs in their training and deployment to date, will mean that they are available to be used to intimidate opposition voters at the polling stations, and to quell any signs of unrest over opposition claims of electoral malpractice.
Yet more important — at least during the campaign period — has been the role of CPs in the localisation of intimidation.
Many observers report an NRM campaign that promises development if communities support the party’s candidates, but simultaneously threatens that projects will be denied if an area votes for the opposition. A Ugandan version of former Kenyan president Daniel Moi’s infamous saying siasa mbaya, maisha mbaya (bad politics, bad life).
Finally, and closely inter-related, is the fact that CPs form part of broader systems of veiled (and not so veiled) threats and intimidatory tactics.
This includes a widespread sense that the president is set on winning and would be unwilling to hand over power to untrustworthy hands.
There is also ongoing violence. As in 2006 and 2011, multiparty campaigns have seen politicians arrested, supporters tear gassed, and journalists beaten. At the same time, CPs are not the only people involved in the localisation of intimidation and insistence that a local vote for NRM candidates will be rewarded and a vote for opposition candidates punished.
Together with people’s scepticism over the possibility of change, this threat of punishment for a pro-opposition vote provides an understandable incentive for many either not to vote or to vote for the NRM.
In this context, CPs are just one of several means that the ruling elite can use to tilt the political playing field in their favour as the election approaches — a fact that only further enhances the significance of CPs, rather than diminishing it.
Human-rights organisations are thus right to question the role of CPs and to insist upon their institutionalisation or disbandment.
However, this is unlikely to happen between now and the national election on February 18. Instead, CPs are likely to remain a central part of another messy electoral story.
Gabrielle Lynch is an associate professor of comparative politics, University of Warwick, UK ([email protected]; @GabrielleLynch6)